Raheem Sterling’s name will be mentioned often in the print and broadcast media many times between now and Sunday, both in his home country and abroad, and perhaps in disparaging terms by some. The penalty that he won in last night’s semi-final made the difference, after all. That penalty secured England’s place in their first major tournament final for 55 years, angering Denmark and forthcoming opponents Italy in one fell swoop.
“Football’s diving home,” were reportedly the words – delivered in English – of one Italian commentator. It was indisputably a soft decision, less of a foul than the challenge on Harry Kane by Christian Norgaard which went unpunished before the end of the 90 minutes. Less of a foul than most of those to have been called all evening, in a refereeing display from official Danny Makkelie that was not always in-keeping with the tournament’s high standard.
Some of football’s greatest minds were in agreement over it. “It was never a penalty,” said Jose Mourinho later. “Especially at this level, the semi-final of a Euro. I don’t understand the decision.” Arsene Wenger felt similar. “I don't know why they didn't ask the ref to take a look. In a moment like that it's important that the referee is absolutely convinced, it was not clear enough,” he said. “VAR has let the referee down.”
There was the small issue of a second ball being on the pitch, too. Kasper Hjulmand, Denmark’s head coach, was understandably disappointed.
Sterling’s defence of himself was brief, defiant and abrupt enough to arouse suspicion in those who felt he had exaggerated the contact from Joakim Maehle, whose attempt to win possession is late but not exactly full-blooded. “Yeah, I went into the box and he stuck his right leg out and it touched my leg, so it’s a clear penalty,” Sterling insisted in his post-match interview. Simple as that.
It was the game’s decisive moment and, for some, will colour perceptions of Sterling’s performance. It may even colour perceptions of his entire tournament, but it should not, as even with that contentious moment, this was another display of poise, maturity and authority. It was yet more evidence that he should be considered a contender to be named the player of the tournament.
Sterling did not score against Denmark but was England’s most consistent, constant threat, as he has been in practically every game for the past three-and-a-half weeks. There was something else here too, though. There was his willingness to shoulder the burden, to take responsibility, to be the senior figure that he now is within this group of players at the relatively young age of 26-years-old. That felt like something new.
The run inside the box, dancing around Danish feet and daring them to challenge him, was one of several that he made from the very first minute. Sterling was asking so many questions of Maehle and Jens Stryger Larsen before him on the opposite flank that it was only really a matter of time before one would miscue their intervention slightly, leaving themselves at risk of conceding a spot-kick.
And it said everything about Sterling’s display that, once finally ahead and with a lead to protect, Gareth Southgate did not feel able to remove him. He was instead forced to make that most uncomfortable of decisions, to substitute a substitute. Jack Grealish was sacrificed because Sterling was simply causing too many problems to be replaced, even with 104 minutes in his legs at that point.
“We know the way Denmark have gone when they've been behind,” Southgate later explained. “We needed to keep pressure on at the front but to have the numbers there to deal with the balls with the box, Raheem was causing so many problems and was so difficult to play all night it was going to have to be Phil [Foden, on the pitch for only nine minutes at that point] or Jack to come off.” Grealish had to be replaced.
It has been a long summer already but it is less than a month since Sterling’s place in this line-up was heavily questioned. It is right that he was not playing particularly well for Manchester City, but then he was not playing much at all for Manchester City either. With England, there are no doubts over whether or not he will be trusted to play, and his performances have improved as a result.
“If you’re not playing, you’re not happy,” he told national newspaper journalists earlier in this tournament, in quotes that did not pick up as much attention as they otherwise might have. “That’s me, that’s been me since a kid. If I’m playing football I am really happy, if I’m not I’m not happy.” What had changed, he was asked. “It is just happiness, just being happy, enjoying my football and that is what I am doing being here with the national team.”
Sterling’s performances in this tournament - and his goals, with three to add to eight scored in qualifying – have dismantled the idea that he is in any way competing for his place with the rest of England’s many attacking options. He is as certified a starter as Kane, as trusted by Southgate too, and his willingness to take the initiative and responsibility during this tournament has opened many people’s eyes to his substantial – and yet still growing – importance.
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